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10 April 2000

Steve’s just dying to meet you

Helping people connect isn't just air-kissing. Networking is hard work, writesCarole Stone

By Carole Stone

Brash, pushy, ruthless and always handing out business cards: the networker doesn’t have a sexy image. I’ve always had an irresistible urge to make sure “this person” meets “that person”. I earn my living putting people together, personally and professionally. But if I were rich, I’d do it for nothing.

Networkers can’t afford to be easily offended or to stand on their dignity. I get really excited helping people “connect” and don’t distinguish between social and professional networking – for me, they merge into one. Friends become involved in a business venture and business colleagues become friends. Wherever there are two or three, or lots of people, gathered together, I want to be there. It’s as simple as that. I agonise if I have to turn down an invitation to anything, and I’m equally disappointed if others can’t accept my invitations. I can’t believe that there are people out there who can miss a party.

A book launch is a typical happy hunting ground for me. I look forward to it as both an enjoyable occasion and a networking opportunity. My husband Richard is a TV journalist: he ought to network, too. But he doesn’t. He’ll latch on to the first person he knows and feels comfortable with and stay discussing an “issue”, until I hear him mutter in my ear: “Can we go now, darling?”

Meanwhile, I’ve roamed the room, spotting friends and colleagues, inviting them to this and that, introducing them to each other. When I meet “new” people I’d like to see again, I admit I do whip out a business card. I don’t do business there and then, but I never end the conversation on the basis that they will contact me; instead, I say I will ring the next day. I extract a card or jot down their name and e-mail address.

Back home after maybe three separate events, I rush straight to my electronic database to debrief myself. Richard says the only way to survive is to let some of these contacts fall through the slats, but I can’t bear that. I go through my scribbled notes and recall every conversation I’ve had, in case I’ve made a promise to pass on a telephone number or send an article.

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I do that at the end of every day – rather as some people keep a daily journal. It matters to me because I’m disappointed when people break their promises to me.

I don’t find networking easy. It’s sometimes difficult to judge when to break into a conversation (Is there a deal being done? Do they look absorbed?) and when to leave one without seeming rude; my rule is never to leave anyone alone, but to bring someone else into the conversation before I disappear. My exit lines range from “I must go to the loo” to “So and so’s leaving. I must just have a quick word . . . ” I am unashamed about occasionally glancing over a person’s shoulder mid-conversation – how else are you to find out who is there?

Networkers have no power or status. When I was the producer of Radio 4’s Any Questions?, I had a proper job. But now I am just “Carole Stone from Nowhere” (as I blurted out once when quizzed by the switchboard operator at No 10). The only value of a networker is the promise he or she brings of an interesting mix of guests, plus the ability to make the gathering work; it’s not enough to assemble a table of interesting people – you have to be able to put them at ease as well.

Small talk should not be despised. It doesn’t have to be about the weather or traffic – there’s scope to admire a brooch or find out how someone knows the host. And small talk leads naturally on to big talk.

I fret if I don’t keep in touch with friends and contacts, which is why some years ago I started my “salon” – a grand word for a simple get-together for a glass of wine at my base in London’s Covent Garden. I began by holding it every Monday from 6pm to 7.30pm. It’s a lot of work, dealing with a host of new people, and for the moment I’ve cut it down to once a month. But an “at home” at a fixed time and place at regular intervals is a good way to keep in touch with friends, as well as meeting new people who come as guests of others. And it draws in people I have met only fleetingly, but don’t feel ready to invite to lunch.

Before guests arrive, I mentally rehearse their names so as to greet them properly, and when I interrupt a conversation to introduce them into a circle, I do it with a one-liner that will get the chat going again: “This is Steve. I met him at the so-and-so lunch last week . . . “

A networker has to be up-to-date on who’s doing what. I rip out profiles of interesting people from newspapers and magazines and go to conferences and belong to a lot of organisations. A networker never gives up on the quarry. No matter how many times potential guests cancel, I immediately re-book them. I think of phone calls not returned as a challenge, not as an insult. And I know the PAs and secretaries as well as I know their bosses.

Very dedicated networkers attend events on their own and never leave until they’ve met the people they want to meet. I found from producing Any Questions? that people holding opposing views are usually pleased to meet each other, and now I work on the principle: “Be brave with the mix – it’s good interaction that’s important.”

I didn’t start out as a networker. I was shy as a teenager; but I did like people and hearing what they had to say. Today, I have more than 13,000 people on my database.

I feel passionately that every introduction is a life-changing opportunity for somebody – not necessarily me. The excitement I get is in thinking that something big could come of a meeting between people I’ve put together.

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